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China’s Olympian Challenges

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated February 15, 2007

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When China won the bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics, it pledged to address environmental concerns, human rights grievances, and restrictive press laws. International Olympics Committee inspectors gave Beijing high marks when they held their first review (Reuters) of the city’s preparations in mid-January.

Beijing has spent more than $10 billion (China Radio International) on environmental protection and has registered air-quality improvements every year since winning the bid in 2001. China promises its rising number of sandstorms caused by deforestation will not turn its “green” Olympics brown. Yet even with improvements, only two out of three days in Beijing were deemed as having “good” air quality last year. Factories and businesses will shut down for sixteen days during the games as part of a contingency plan to meet clean air standards (PDF). This new Backgrounder looks at China’s environmental crisis.

China, which also pledged to ease media restrictions as part of its Olympics bid, recently released a new set of media guidelines. Beginning last month and running through next year’s summer games, foreign journalists are allowed to report throughout the country, without the official permission previously required. Some foreigners have already tested the new freedoms: When an Economist correspondent wanted to cover the fate of thousands infected with HIV/AIDS because of a bungled blood drive, Henan province officials tried to block the reporter. The authorities cooperated (Subscription) after calling the foreign ministry in Beijing.

In this new podcast, a China media expert Ashley W. Esarey calls the new laws a Communist Party “experiment” and says the press freedoms may become permant unless they “lead Chinese journalists to call for more freedom themselves.” Just how free new press freedoms will be in China, which expects some 20,000 foreign reporters for the games, remains to be seen. A Beijing police manual obtained by the Christian Science Monitor titled “Olympic Security English” includes a chapter on dealing with foreign media with such translated phrases as: “You're a sports reporter. You should only cover the Games.” China continues to hold a dubious distinction as the world’s top jailer of journalists, with thirty-one imprisoned in 2006 and incarcerations of Internet reporters on the rise, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In this report on the Olympic Games, Human Rights Watch says some six thousand Beijing residents were evicted to make way for Olympic sites, and limits to reporting serve as an obstacle to assessing whether evictees receive adequate compensation. This Backgrounder takes a look at China’s censorship system.

While commending the revised media laws, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said they should not only be made permanent, but should also extend to local journalists. In an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, one Beijing journalist wondered, now that officials gave foreign correspondents the right to travel and report, “How can they prevent Chinese journalists from going as well?”

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